Agile Book Club

The Collaboration Equation by Jim Benson

March 09, 2023 Justyna Pindel and Paul Klipp Season 5 Episode 3
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Welcome to the Agile book club. Here's your host, Paul klipp. Hello, and welcome to another edition of the Agile book club podcast. This is gonna be a little bit different because Justina is absolutely swamped with work on the ACE conference. And so I'm alone this time, you've got me. Deal with it. I'm going to try to make up and content, what this podcast is going to be lacking in personality. It's the best I can do. But we're talking about a really fabulous book, a really exciting book full of a lot of really good ideas. And I think you're going to enjoy and appreciate that. The book is by Jim Benson, an old friend of mine, who I have known for ages and ages and ages, we met, it seems at least 15 years ago. And the way we met was funny, if I recall this properly, because my memory is a shaky thing these days, I was doing a talk about Kanban in the early, early, early days of Kanban, at a conference in Bucharest, Romania, and during the open space sessions, I hosted an open space session in which I introduced how I used Kanban to manage my personal life. I called it personal Kanban. And I guess they shared that on social media. And a few days later, Jim reached out to me, and he said, I see you're talking about personal Kanban, I'm writing a book about it, maybe you and I should meet. And I can't remember the content of that conversation. But it must have been a good one. Because we've stayed in touch ever since he's one of those those conference buddies, you know, I don't know, you may not know this, but but when you're a speaker on the Agile conference circuit, I imagine when you're a speaker in any conference circuit, there are those people who you really enjoy, you really enjoy talking to you really enjoy spending time with, but you only ever see them when you're both speaking at the same conference together. And Jim did come and speak at the ACE conference once he led a workshop on personal Kanban, which was wonderful. And he's written a few books. His latest one is called the collaboration equation. And I was skeptical, I'll admit, I was skeptical because it was not that long ago that I read team topologies. And the author's they articulated something that seemed counterintuitive to me, despite all my experience as an Agile coach. And that is the idea that collaboration is the most expensive form of getting things done. And that, in fact, it should be discouraged. And it seems counterintuitive, because we always think that the main thing we need to do is facilitate and get people working well together. But obviously working well together on something that doesn't require you to work together at all is going to be less efficient. And so I wanted to see how Jim addressed this. And I think he addressed it masterfully. So let's just get straight into it. This is my elevator pitch for the collaboration equation. And it's a tricky one, because oftentimes, a book lends itself to a role. So I might say that this is for junior agile coaches, or this is for Scrum Masters or this is for technology leaders or what have you. But in this case, this is very much a book for change agents, I would say no change agent can be as we know, from April Mills, absolutely anyone. But it's tricky. Because the kind of change that this book talks about, is very, very difficult kind of change, to socialize. It is fundamentally cultural change, large scale. And so he does two things in this book that are noteworthy, he paints a very rosy picture of a possible future. And he uses a lot of examples from his own consulting experience to paint this picture through stories. And that's wonderful. It's compelling. It's warm, it's rich. But it's also an enormous amount of work. And so if you find those rosy pictures attractive, but you either do not feel like you're in a position to exercise the authority required in order to make that happen, or you don't have the tenacity, and it's okay. It's okay to not have the tenacity to drive major change. It's hard and you have to really care. And we're all in different places in our lives. And some of us are just swamped, and some of us just don't have the headspace for that sort of thing. And so if you read this book, and you find the, this future state to be attractive, but you're unwilling to do the work to get there, it's just going to cause you to have more dissatisfaction in your workplace. But if both of those things are true, if Have you believe you can imagine a near idealistic, okay, that's too far. But if you can imagine a much healthier, much more productive, much more effective workspace, and you're willing to collaborate with others to work to make that happen over the long term, then this is an absolutely wonderful book, because the second part of it talks about how you go about doing that. So that's my elevator pitch. That's who I think should read this book, everyone who wants a better work life, and is willing to work for it. And to give this a little more context, one of the things I came across towards the end of the book, this is a direct quotation, but it's not one of my favorite quotations. But what I do like about it is when I read this sentence, it occurred to me that if Jim were to explain the whole book, just in a nutshell, just in a few words, this sentence is what he might say. And that is, quote, build a clear understanding of what your professionals want, and need collaboratively expressed in a way that reminds them of their commitment to each other, and spurs us into action, located in an identifiable place, and part of a regular and predictable social structure. And, and really, that's what this whole book is about. But in order to fully appreciate that you have to understand what he means by teams and what he means by professionals, and what's actually necessary in order to create commitment and an agency. And so that's what we're gonna get into in the takeaways. Now, if I had to sum up this whole book, In a sentence, listeners of this podcast will will know that we've talked about flight levels more than once. Flight levels, of course, was the subject of the very first episode of this podcast ever over three years ago. And it came up when we were talking to Jonathan smart about better value sooner safer, happier, because without naming it, he talks a lot about flight levels in that book. And I would say if you're familiar with what flight levels are, the collaboration equation, in some senses is about how to build healthy, sustainable and resilient flight level two systems, which is all of those systems that have to occur that do exist, in fact, in any company, in between the delivery teams and the the top management planning, and all of the interactions that have to happen. I mean, everyone talks about I had a conversation with with one of the people who I'm coaching, who is an Agile coach. And she is trying to minimize dependencies. And I think one of the challenges that that one faces when minimizing dependencies, is the very important distinction, which to her credit she makes between minimizing dependencies and eliminating dependencies, and it's a mental thing. If you say all if you think all dependencies are bad, and your attempt to minimize dependencies is actually focused on eliminating them. Because every dependency is an opportunity to simplify matters, then you're going to be thinking about dependencies simply as things to be eliminated, or things to be be dealt with as efficiently as possible. But I think the realization that comes from reading the collaboration equation, and from understanding the importance of flight level two systems, is that dependencies sometimes are incredibly important parts of getting our work done. And the important thing is to understand which dependencies should be eliminated in which dependencies we should be building effective systems to optimize. So let's get right into it. I think this will make more sense when I get into into takeaways. So the book is titled The collaboration equation. And that implies that there is an equation, which means there should be an equal in there or something. And the it is this, it's that individuals in teams create value. And we'll be unpacking that a bit during these these key takeaways. So the first one that comes from early early in the book is this idea of professionalism. And this really struck me because you've heard me talk about this before. I have been in a lot of environments in which professionalism was defined as not showing any emotions, doing your job without making any waves, you know, and that is not human. And therefore, it is not humane.

Emotions are a part of work if you love your job, and if you're passionate about what you do, you're going to have an emotional life at work, and tampering that down and pretending to be some sort of an automaton at the office is not the answer to being a professional. I'd like what Jim has to say. And that is that he defines a professional and he uses the word throughout the book. So the definition is important catch, catching it at the beginning is important. That is any person with informed agency who feels safe. And there's a lot to unpack there as well. One thing I like about it is it's anyone not necessarily connected to a role or a hierarchy. And informed agency and safety, there's three big concepts, they're informed implies that this person has a job, they know how to do it, and they know what needs to be done, they have the context that they need, in order to make decisions and take action agency implies that they can use that information to actually implement their decisions and to actually take the appropriate action. And the safety implies that they can do this in a way that it's it's doesn't mean that they will never make a mistake. But it does mean that they can act without fear of personal retaliation, they can act as a human being in a human environment, without feeling like, like they're going to be personally held accountable for things that are outside of their control. And those three things together, I think, are challenging, incredibly challenging. And one of the things we're going to have to get into in the interview is, is I think there are some aspects of of the socialization of the kind of environment which he calls the right environment, that I don't feel like the full complexity of the work involved in getting their work was covered as well as as I would have liked in this book. But he also admits at the end of the book, that this 200 page book was a 600 page book edited down. So there may be a whole 200 page book on socializing change, that that still has to come yet. But essentially, what what he says in a nutshell, is that the solution to all of this is effective visualization. And we talked a lot about visualization when we're talking about Dominica to grant us his book. But but this is something next level, this level of his visualization, this type of visualization, Jim calls and obey that's not his word. I don't know what the origin of that word is. But an Obeah is a place where all of the information that that people need in order to act with confidence, can go to get that information. And a lot of this book is about building effective obey errs. And so the idea is that if the information is clear, and accessible, that people can make informed decisions, and a person who can make an informed decision will make an informed decision if they feel safe doing so. And so psychological safety is a huge component of this. Because there's a difference between knowing that there's a problem and feeling responsible for the problem. And feeling like you can actually do something about the problem. And those two aspects, there's the safety and and the information are essential for effective agency. So the other thing that is a big takeaway from me in this book is he talks a lot about teams. But he very rarely uses that word the way you and I do. So when I think of a team, I think of the classic scrum team, you know, or a management team or a leadership team, or what have you, but it will be in the org chart. If you looked at the org chart, you could see these teams, these are the teams of four people who are reported this person or this is the the accounting team. This is the marketing team. This is is a software delivery team. But when he talks about teams, he's talking about a group of people who have a shared concern. And this can very often especially when you're talking about flight level two systems, he never mentioned flight levels. But I'm going to mention flight level two systems quite a bit during this podcast, I suspect, because it's a useful concept in this in this case, a flight level two system is what happens when you walk into an open plan office. Let's say that you've got a company and it's got 200 employees, and they're all in many different teams. You know, you've got marketing over there in the corner, you've got finance over there, and you've got accounting over there. And you got a half a dozen software delivery teams, and you've got your executive leadership team and all of these teams, and you walk into the middle of this this huge room of 200 people and you say I am sick and tired of constantly having the direction of this company change thinking that we're trying to go after one goal. And suddenly, it's a different goal. And I think somebody should do something about it. And so I'm going to go over into this conference room, and anybody who wants to help me do something about it can join me. You walk into that conference room, and within 1015 minutes, people are streaming in. And before you know it, you've got 43 people in the room, representing every level of the hierarchy, and representatives of almost every team in the company. That is the let's stop the surprising changes in company direction team. And when they're working on changing surprising changes in company direction, they're working together as a team, but they spend most of their time sitting in other teams. And so when we talk about teamwork, it could be that it could be a problem. It could also be something like each team in the company, each team as as it's defined in the hierarchy, or in the org chart, or what have you might be responsible for a piece of how the company works. But on a larger scale, they're all working towards certain key objectives. So if you go into a software company that has, for example, 10 Scrum teams, that's all well and good. But no single scrum team is responsible for 200% year on year growth. There is no team that is in the org chart, which is responsible for that, but that's a company goal, the investors expected the users expected top management expects it. Everybody has a stake in that goal. Everybody has somebody contribute to that goal. But that goal is not the responsibility of any one team. So how do you handle that? And, and to that extent, the team that is responsible for delivering the growth that this early stage startup needs, is practically everyone in the company, and some amount of their time is, is going to be devoted to thinking about how they can make that happen. And if all of their effort and all of their thinking about how they can make that happen, is confined to the narrow boundaries of the team in which the org chart places them, then what what you're looking at there is an example of local optimization, this is a bigger problem, or this is a bigger possibility, this is a bigger opportunity than any one group of two pizza teams. Seven people give or take whatever you define the team as can take responsibility for and so an Obeah. Coming back to that concept is a place where everybody who has an interest in the growth of the company can see how the company is growing, what is contributing to the company's growth, and what might be holding back the company's ability to meet its goals. And these can be either special case, situations like a problem appears. And when a problem appears, somebody knows about it first, to a two person company, one person sees what's coming. And if you have an effective, let's grow this company, team, which comprises hundreds of people, then the quicker that team can know that there is this this problem on the horizon, the quicker they can respond to it effectively. And so Libya is a place where you might suddenly a big red post it note shows up on the wall of the Obeah. And everybody who has an interest when they're in the Obeah sees, oh, something's going on here, we need to collaborate around it. Or it could be just big, ugly things that everyone knows about and that they're chipping away at. And we're gonna get into that a little bit too because that was another one of my take takeaways is how to actually deal with with the huge messy situation, that can't really be the responsibility of any individual or any specific organizational team.

So my next minutes takeaway is his definition of ineffective systems. And these are going to sound really familiar to all of us who work in in the corporate world at any level. You've probably seen this sort of thing he defines three sorts of ineffective systems which are commonplace, there is the one in which information is hoarded in which information is power. And and you I think we've all seen this, where if if they know everything, they won't come to me anymore, and I won't be important anymore. And this is just part of the culture. And the problem with that, of course, is it creates doubt, all of a sudden, a person who who sees a problem, either they're not sure if it's really a problem, maybe they they're not sure what they're seeing, they lack the context. They're not sure whose problem it is, they don't have agency, or they're not sure whether or not somebody else is already dealing with it. They're not sure whether or not this is intentional. And a good example of this is, and this is something that this actually happened to me when I was doing some work in a corporation. I can't get into any specifics, but I think the general pattern is one that might be familiar. And that is there was something very suboptimal going on. And it was the result, the direct result of a top management decision. And I proposed a solution to it, but nobody was the least bit interested. And at one point, somebody in middle management, or reasonably senior person in the middle management took me aside and said, something that you haven't considered, Paul is that this pain, which has been caused by this decision, might be deliberate. It might be political, maybe somebody wants to make somebody else look bad. Or maybe somebody wants a project to fail. Or maybe somebody wants to push some people out of the company. And if you suspect that you're in a place where that kind of thing might happen, you can't be sure of anything. And you can't do anything without permission and protections. So there's, there's that anti pattern. Another is changing priorities. And I think we we've all probably seen this, if you have any experience in businesses, is if you don't have a great deal of transparency around the overall picture. If the direction comes from a small and secretive executive team, then you get this this there's a good example of it in in Dilbert actually with with everything going on about with Dilbert, I hate bringing it up now. But I guess I've already started it. So I'll just finish it. And that is this this phenomenon of own know, the pointy haired boss has gotten his hands on a trade journal. Because every time he reads something, a blog, post an article, here's a talk at a conference, whatever the the exciting new thing is, we have to do it and change direction to accommodate it. But But I think this happens anytime that direction comes from a small group of people from from a leadership team, without transparency around the overall picture. Because if we had the view, if everybody in the company had the view that the executive team has, then they would see changes in direction coming a mile away. But since those conversations only happened in the boardroom, then the only thing that comes out of the boardroom is the outcome of those conversations, which come as a surprise to everyone else. And that reduces collaboration, it reduces creativity, it reduces people to just, you can't really get excited about what you're doing, if you know that it could change at any moment. And the last is this idea of doling out work where people who are professionals and can do good work, don't have the the information, the context in order to take their own decisions about what needs to be done. And instead, they have to wait for someone to tell them, they have to wait to be handed the backlog. And that only does this introduce a lot of delay. And it does one of the most most pernicious things in our industry. And I've said this before, I don't know if I've said it on the podcast. One of the things I love about this industry, I got my professional start, like my first real professional job job if you don't count, being a newspaper editor, when I was in high school was running a kitchen inside of a prison for a big company called Aramark that provides food and clothing services to industries they run kitchens in schools and hospitals, airplane food, what have you. And I worked for them and my job was running a kitchen inside of a prison. My staff were inmates and so I learned management with and these this was a long term facility so I learned management with literally murderers and drug dealers and rapists and such. And I'm not saying that those people were stupid. They absolutely words, there were some really, really clever, really nice people in there. But you couldn't count on it, you know, they needed a lot of direction. There was one guy, for example, he was Greek, and I had to lock up the garlic powder whenever he was in the kitchen. Nothing you could tell him would keep him from putting way too much garlic in anything and everything. And that wasn't a lack of context, that was lack of shared vision. He had his own ideas, and and he didn't much care what anyone else thought. But when I moved into it, all of a sudden, I was surrounded by really, really intelligent, creative people. And the idea of taking an intelligent, creative person, and telling them exactly what to do and how to do it is deeply upsetting to me. Because what's the point of getting a bunch of great minds together in a room, if you're not going to utilize them to their full potential? This isn't like Henry Ford was was was said to have said once, why is it every time I asked for a pair of hands, they come with a head, he may or may not have said that. And in an assembly line, maybe all you need is a pair of hands. But what's valuable in our work is the heads and when they don't know what to do, because they haven't been told. And they know that anything they do without being told will be wrong, because they don't have the context to make decisions. And they don't have the psychological safety, to know that they can make decisions without facing dire repercussions than all they can really they're just a pair of hands. They just code what they're told to code. And that's a huge waste of potential value. So how do you get to this right environment? How do you get to this place where the right people have the right information at the right time in order to make the right decisions and can collaborate in real time. And this is where, where the book starts to lose me a little bit. Because I get the big picture. And in fact, there are big pictures in this book and their details in this book. But there's a gap between the big picture and the details, the big picture is you get a group of people together who have a shared interest in the company's well being. And together, you build a Value Stream Map backwards from from from the end of the value stream to the beginning. And this might take hours, it might take days. And we've all done this, I hope been involved in the value stream mapping exercise, it's always enlightening, because people tend just to look at their own piece. And one of the enlightening things is it's very rare that anybody actually knows what the value stream is. Usually there are steps in the value stream that come out through through discussion that nobody in the company would have anticipated. So most companies, if they haven't gone through this exercise, don't actually know how they deliver value, or where the end of this value or the realization of this value value actually happens. So once you have this value stream map, and everyone understands how the company produces value, and in the process, a lot of things can come out like there could be why do we do these steps this way? Do we have multiple paths for different kinds of work?

potential areas for improvement come out during this exercise as well. And so the next question is, alright, if we wanted to optimize this, what kind of information would we need. And that is where they collaboratively build the Obeah. And the Obeah is going to be constantly evolving, obviously. And it's very important that the team that's going to be using it builds it. This is this is something I ran into at another one of my my roles once when I was introducing Kanban into a large organization. And we started with one team. And then we spent an entire day building their Kanban board. And then they hired on more teams. And the other team said, Well, why don't we just copy their board, they spent a whole day working on it, it must be good. And there were some coaches who wanted to do that. And there was one coach who did do that. In fact, they copied the first teams board, I advised against it, but gave them liberty to do things their own way. And what I found we ended up with seven teams at that location. What I found is that six months, nine months, a year later, six of those teams boards had evolved in radically different directions. But the one team that copied the first team is board, their board still look the same after a year and the reason is they didn't own it. They hadn't made the difficult decisions about why everything goes there. And so they just assumed it was all there for a good reason. And if you don't know the reason why you did something, you're never going to stop doing it even if it doesn't work, because you don't know what it's supposed to be doing in the first place. So you build this obey this initial Well, obeya that answers the question, what kind of information do we need? Not too much, not too little, in order to know what the best use of our time and brainpower is. Each is an individual, we have our roles. But we also with this big picture, can see, for example, opportunities for collaboration. Now, opportunities for collaboration in a siloed company usually looks something like this. I'm doing my job and doing my job and doing my job and doing my job. Oh, no, a ticket came into our ticketing system saying that there's a bug. It's not my problem, I'm doing my job, I'm doing my job. And then a few days later, my boss comes and says, I got a call from this other teams boss saying that this thing is really important. I'm like, Ah, okay. Do you want me to do it now? No, we'll do it in the next sprint kind of thing. And I never may have a conversation with the person who needs my help. The conversations are all happening at different management levels above me as this thing gets prioritized and reprioritize. And eventually, I have to do it. And then I toss it back in I say this, this bug has been fixed or or this this, this piece has been implemented, what have you, but I don't know how it's going to be used. I don't know why it was important. Whereas if this was actually critical, if this was something that could really help the enterprise, then I'd want to know that. And if we had an effective obeya, that revealed this opportunity, I might have come to work, look at that event and said, You know, I've got this job to do. But this is a more valuable use of my time, and it came from this person over there and I'd go talk to them, we'd sit down, we'd pair, maybe if it was a big ugly thing, we might get a few people together who can collaborate to mob on it, because we all recognize that this is the best use of our time. So this is the kind of space that you want to build a space that gives you the information you need, that everyone needs to make the best decisions because they know what's going on. They know what the priorities are. And this is where it gets tricky for me. Let's say you've got a dysfunctional organization, where they hoard information and priorities are often changing. And managers dole out work because they feel like that's what makes them important. That's what management does. If they weren't doling out work, then they'd be out of control of the work, right. And you have this this week long meeting, which which they call the modus right environment exercise. And they do this this, they do this big value stream map, looking for different kinds of works and fixes and silos and and how information flows and how to measure the impact of the different things that are going on in different activities and such. And now they've got this and so they get these people together, they build this this initial Obeah. And it's got a couple of Kanban boards on the wall. It's it's got maybe, maybe budgets, maybe, maybe it's got timelines for different initiatives. It's got OKRs, what have you. And what happens next, from this book, one might get the impression that Oh, after that you have a right environment. Now, I'm not accusing the authors of saying that because they clearly don't. They talk about the evolution of OBS over time, they talk about the amount of time that it takes, but not actually, to my satisfaction, what's going on during that time. So it kind of reminds me of the the stealth Park, underwear gnomes profit plans, you know, gather underwear is phase one. Phase three is profit. So phase one is have a meeting, have a have a have a workshop, build a Value Stream Map and a bear. Phase three is have a wonderful, healthy, brilliant, beautiful environment in which everybody is, is a safe, empowered professional. What's phase two. And I think we all anyone who's been a change agent who's worked on cultural change, any whatever it may be from, from trying to, to implement psychological safety in an office space that doesn't have psychological safety, to doing an Agile transformation, whatever it is, knows that there is a really ugly park there in the middle, where you've got to be flexible, and consistent. And you'll still probably fail because changing culture is incredibly hard to do. And and I think those might have been some of the stories that got cut out of the book, because 400 pages of this book are missing. And and so I'm wondering, I'm wondering if maybe I can persuade him to write the next book about how to socialize change because I know he knows how to do it. I know he's done a lot of it. He understands all of the sociology and psychology behind it. But it didn't make the cut for this book. Ah, all right, that that was that was, that was a takeaway that turned into a rant, and I am sorry about that. But, but I feel like to, to give it to really express my feelings about this book, I couldn't not go there. The clue to what might be happening in phase two might be hidden in the chapter about the principles of a right environment. And, and he identifies five principles, which which he calls pay attention have situational awareness. This in itself is tricky. People who have never been held accountable, I don't think want situational awareness, they they would you see this? After you will you see this a lot, you see this a lot in the the number of Scrum Masters who believe that their job is to protect the team. You know what I mean? You've seen this, my job is to protect the team from the chaos outside. Because the team doesn't want situational awareness. We want them to focus on doing what we told them to do. And that's comfortable, you know, sitting in in a nice little cocoon in a sea of chaos. And knowing that your job is safe, as long as you do what you're told is comfortable. And so moving from that, that place, culturally, to a place in which everybody is actively seeking situational awareness is a huge step, the next one is given to him. And I know that this is a family from the from the podcast, I think that dam is a safe word to say. Normally, I don't use any vulgarity at all in this podcast, except one, it's the title of Bob Galen darn book. But but the second one is to give a damn so you, in order to have a functioning great environment, everybody has to actually care about the environment, and and about the company and where it's going. And again, if you've got people who just show up to work just to to earn their paycheck as easily as they can. That's gonna be a difficult thing to make happen. Although I think that's easier because I believe that fundamentally deep down human beings want the satisfaction of doing meaningful work. And so given the opportunity to have have agency in a space that allows them to create real value, and to see that value being created, I think anybody who's who once they get a taste of that they can't have enough of it.

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